1917 November 5

Louisville Racial Segregation Ordinance Held Unconstitutional


In Buchanan v. Warley, decided on this day, the Supreme Court declared unconstitutional a Louisville, Kentucky, ordinance that prohibited the sale of real estate to African-Americans. The 1917 decision was a very rare early civil rights decision by the Court. However, the Court ruled that the law was a violation of “freedom of contract” under the Fourteenth Amendment, and not a violation of the Equal Protection Clause. (The Fourteenth Amendment provides that no state shall “deprive any person of life, liberty, or property [emphasis added], without due process of law.”) Thus, the decision represented protection of the right of property owners to buy and sell their property without governmental interference.

Congress finally passed a Fair Housing Act on August 11, 1968, in the immediate aftermath of the assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King a week earlier.

The Court: “The effect of the ordinance under consideration was not merely to regulate a business or the like, but was to destroy the right of the individual to acquire, enjoy, and dispose of his property. Being of this character, it was void as being opposed to the due process clause of the constitution.”

Learn more about African American history: Henry Louis Gates, Life Upon These Shores: Looking at African American History, 1513-2008 (2011)

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